Editor’s note: This week and next, we will break down each of LSU’s position groups as we prepare for the Tigers to open preseason practice in early August. We conclude our look at the offense today with the offensive line.
BATON ROUGE, La. -- LSU had the pieces in place last season to boast one of the SEC’s most dominant offensive lines. At times the Tigers could have made that claim, but they too frequently dealt with continuity issues created by injuries and suspensions.
Nonetheless, LSU’s bread and butter -- the power running game -- was still productive despite opponents concentrating on the run because the Tigers’ subpar quarterback play rarely forced defenses to respect the pass.
Future attrition is impossible to predict, and the only significant way the linemen can help the quarterbacks improve is by protecting them from oncoming rushers, but LSU’s line could once again rank among the SEC’s best units.
Yes, they lost left tackle La’el Collins, who won the SEC’s Jacobs Blocking Trophy as the league’s top blocker. They lost starting center Elliott Porter and reserve guards Evan Washington and Fehoko Fanaika, as well. But draft-eligible veterans Vadal Alexander and Jerald Hawkins -- now the right and left tackles -- elected to stay for another year, averting what could have been a disaster for position coach Jeff Grimes.
Instead of starting nearly from scratch, Grimes returns three solid starters (also including junior center/guard Ethan Pocic) and should have a deep, talented group of young linemen to fill in the two open guard jobs and the reserve spots on the depth chart.
Had preseason All-SEC pick Alexander and Hawkins turned pro, the line might have been LSU’s biggest question mark -- yes, even more so than the quarterback. With them in the fold, the debate over who should start at guard is a mild concern at best.
Grimes tried a multitude of players there in the spring before starting Will Clapp and Josh Boutte in the LSU spring game. Maybe they’ll hold onto the starting spots beyond preseason practice, but it would be premature to say they have them locked down yet -- not with talented players like Garrett Brumfield and K.J. Malone, among others, in the mix along with an outstanding group of signees who will be on campus in August.
The offensive line group was arguably the highlight of LSU’s top-10 signing class, including three signees who ranked among ESPN’s top 150 prospects (No. 71 Maea Teuhema, No. 87 Chidi Valentine-Okeke and No. 149 Toby Weathersby). Grimes might not need the freshmen this year, but they’ll have a chance to compete in August in order to avoid a redshirt season.
Some of LSU’s better offensive linemen in recent years -- including Collins, Alexander and Pocic -- have played as true freshmen, so it can be done. But it would be a mild surprise if Grimes’ starting lineup isn’t loaded with returning veterans this fall, forming a group that could be at least as good as the one from the preceding season.
Newcomers: Maea Teuhema (Fr., Keller, Texas/Keller, ESPN four-star prospect, No. 2 OG, No. 71 overall prospect); Chidi Valentine-Okeke (Fr., Ludowici, Ga./Faith Baptist Christian Academy, ESPN four-star prospect, No. 6 OT, No. 87 overall prospect); Toby Weathersby (Fr., Houston, Texas/Westfield, ESPN four-star prospect, No. 9 OG, No. 149 overall prospect); Adrian Magee (Fr., Franklinton, La./Franklinton, ESPN four-star prospect, No. 41 OT); George Brown Jr. (Fr., Cincinnati, Ohio/Winton Woods, ESPN three-star prospect, No. 67 OT).
Keep your eye on: Boutte. The junior hasn’t received a ton of attention since he arrived at LSU, but he was good enough in the spring to start at right guard. Teammates like Alexander have often said in the past that Boutte was loaded with potential and simply needed to develop some confidence and sharpen his knowledge of the offense. Perhaps he finally started putting it all together this spring. We know this much: He’s one of the strongest players on the team and, at 6-foot-5, 340 pounds, he could also be one of the most imposing.
Confidence meter: Strong. It will be interesting to see how Alexander and Hawkins fare at right and left tackle, respectively, after starting at left guard and right tackle for the past two seasons. They should be fine, as should Pocic at center. The identities of the starting guards are more a source of intrigue than one of concern. Bottom line, this should be a solid bunch in 2015. The group lacks experience beyond the returning starters, so that will probably be an item on Grimes’ checklist this fall. The more snaps Grimes can find for his young players, the better off LSU will be in 2016 in beyond.